This weekend, a devastating wildfire along the Merced River near Yosemite National Park quadrupled in size and edged closer to the park. Firefighters struggled to make an impact due to the high temperatures and the steep terrain.
The Ferguson Fire in Mariposa County had ravaged 4,310 acres of land and was barely contained by Sunday evening. Nearly 500 firefighters were on the scene aided by helitankers. Though no structures had been affected, there are 108 that are threatened along Highway 140. Firefighters sought to prevent the flames from crossing the Ferguson Ridge.
“It is a very active fire, and since we’re in a very warm trend, with afternoon temperatures in the triple digits, fire activity is expected to be on the high side,” said Alex Olow, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service.
The fire began Friday in the Merced River Canyon and claimed the life of a firefighter on Saturday. PG&E shut off power in the area and closed the main route into Yosemite, which is in the midst of the tourist season. The firefighter, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection bulldozer operator Braden Varney, 36, of Mariposa, died after his bulldozer rolled over as he was building a firebreak, a Cal Fire spokesperson said.
Varney, who had worked for Cal Fire for 10 years, was a second generation fire protection bulldozer operator, Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said. He is survived by his wife and two children. A page for his family has been set up at GoFundMe.com.
Gov. Jerry Brown lowered the flags at the Capitol to honor Varney, and said he was saddened by the death of “a man who dedicated his life to protecting his fellow Californians.”
The fire in the Sierra National Forest forced the closure of Highway 140, one of the main routes into the park, between Midpines and El Portal in both directions. Yosemite Valley, though covered in smoke, was open through entrances on highways 120 and 41.
The fire, which had been outside of the park, was nearing the enclosure and sending clouds of smoke into the preserve. Forest Service fire officials recommended evacuations from Yosemite West, a subdivision near the road to Glacier Point. A fire crew was at Yosemite West planning structure protection.
Despite the smoke, Sunday was a fairly normal day in Yosemite Valley as cars entered the valley and hikers ascended the trails. “So far, everything is OK,” said Scott Gediman, a Yosemite spokesperson. “The park is open but we’re advising anyone with respiratory issues to be careful.”